And ye shall all be freed from slavery,And so ye shall be free in everything;And as the sign that ye are truly free,Ye shall be naked in your rites, both menAnd women also: this shall last untilThe last of your oppressors shall be dead;-From Aradia: Gospel of the Witches, by Charles G. Leland
Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind, by Jean-Léon Gérôme 1896 [Public domain] (via Wikimedia Commons)
A lot of modern witchcraft intersects with our bodies. We expect to experience magic as a visceral force, dance ecstatically, use the remnants of bodies–both plant and animal–in our spells, or alternately slather or dab our bodies with magical concoctions to gain a little advantage in a harsh world. In particular, some branches of witchcraft religion, such as British Traditional Wicca, emphasize the importance of bodily acceptance and embrace the human body as a source of power. That power, according to Wiccan progenitor Gerald Gardner, is pulled from the freeing of an “electromagnetic field” by the removal of clothing (although Gardner did allow that he thought “slips or Bikinis could be worn without unduly causing loss of power,” for what that is worth (and please note, I’m not particularly taking Gardner to task here, nor disavowing the traditions he launched, but pointing out that his theories about nudity were influenced largely by his own ideas and experiences).
Recently, people engaged with magic–especially magic and ritual where engagement means contact with other people–have been raising their voices over systematic and ongoing abuse at the hands of elders and community members. Women and young people seem particularly vulnerable as targets of groping, unwanted pressure for sexual initiation, or having bodies simultaneously treated as sacred and sexualized as objects. I am not going to recapitulate the entire discussion of these abuses here, although I will highly recommend spending some time really processing posts like the tough-but-vital ones posted by Sarah Lawless in recent months. Her writing has been excellent and influential, and I have seen countless victims (including many men who experience abuse in neo-Pagan circles) step forward to talk about what has happened to them and insist that it stop (and stop it should!).
That is not my aim today, however, although my topic is tangled into the net of that discussion. I was curious about the role of the witch’s body, specifically the witch’s naked body, as a component of her power or her craft. I knew well the line from Leland’s Aradia quoted above, but I also know that Leland’s sources do not always speak to a broad experience (or even an historically verifiable one, although I value much of his work). Leland’s goddess insists that nudity is an unshackling from the bonds of slavery and a sign of freedom, and Gardner seems to have run with nudity as a liberating experience as well within his own coven. Yet we also see nudity being used to degrade witches, shame them, or force them into the role of living succubus or “red woman” seductress. Where does nudity fit into a New World magical practice? Are there precedents for nude practice, does nudity have any value in practical magic, and does nudity still matter today?
There are essentially two situations in which witches might practice nude in New World witchcraft: alone and in groups. However, even here there are some gray areas, because when a witch is “alone,” they are often not entirely alone. They may be meeting an Otherworldly entity for an initiation rite, for example, and be expected to offer their body up for sexual congress, or even a simple washing ritual. In Appalachian lore, however, the favors were not always sexual, as some initiation rites involved offering a literal piece of one’s body, where “the devil is granted your soul in exchange for some talent, gift, or magical power, it is thought that he then receives some gift of the body in return. This could be a fingernail or even a withered finger.”
Just as often, these initiation rites involve a solitary witch stripping bare, but only as a precursor to other solitary action: cursing or shooting at the moon or (more practically) wading into a river or stream to wash away a previous baptism in some symbolic way. The sexualization of the witch in these encounters is virtually nil, except as perhaps a titillating detail for the listener or a matter of practical necessity for the witch. The act itself is symbolic because the witch is abandoning a previous life–usually a Christian one–and the removal of clothing is much like the washing away of the baptism.
Other parts of the New World also held that witches might strip bare on their own as an abandonment of social order. That was the common perception in Puritan New England, where witches were believed to travel into the woods to meet with “devils” or “Indians” (who were sometimes regarded by European colonists as essentially interchangeable). The idea that witches practiced magic in the buff, however, varied immensely from place to place. Sometimes it is included as a detail in stories of hag-riding, for example, especially in cases where the witch needed to apply a flying ointment of some kind before taking off.
AnonymousUnknown author [Public domain] (via Wikimedia Commons)
Group rituals are often a mixed bag as well, since witches might work in conjunction with another witch at times or meet up with a number of other witches for special events (such as during Walpurgisnacht-type celebrations). In one Ozark story, a would-be witch undergoes her initiation when she “removes every stitch of clothing, which she hangs on an infidel’s [non-believer’s] tombstone.” This rite is witnessed by two other nude initiates, but the sexual congress is relegated solely to the witch and “the Devil,” and not any human initiates. One tale of a pair of sister-witches on Roan Mountain in the Smokies tells of two witches removing their clothing before greasing up and flying up the chimney, for example. Other accounts describe groups of women slipping out of their clothes–or more potently, their skins–before flying off to perform dances. Details of sexual congress appear in European accounts, but are often minimized in North American ones, and frequently even the more diabolical descriptions of group nudity tend not to emphasize sexuality. A number of African tales about witches do indicate that they might have traveled naked to do their work (which was often desecrating graves or hunting children, work that hopefully contemporary witches are not doing). In these cases, however, the nudity was often solitary and never sexual, as the emphasis was on the witch’s wildness and cannibalistic nature rather than her sexual one. I’d also note that in cases where groups of nude witches meet, they are often all one gender (with the exception being the presence of an Otherworldly figure like the Devil), and that when someone intrudes on magical nudity–as happens in the Roan Mountain story–that person is usually punished.
In Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules & Men, she recounts an initiation ceremony experienced at the hands of Louisiana conjure-man Luke Turner (who claimed a lineage with Marie Leveau). In that ritual, Hurston was indeed stripped of her clothing and required to lie on a couch with no food for three days while she waited for a spirit to claim her. Then she was carefully bathed and had a symbol painted upon her, and finally “dressed in new underwear and a white veil…placed over [her] head” after which no one was allowed to speak to her until the ritual was concluded. The nakedness here is again symbolic, but Hurston very much demonstrates that there is no sexual component to it. She is most powerful during the ritual when she is veiled, then eventually has the veil lifted and she is given a “crown of power.”
Some of the most sensational accounts that involve witchcraft-like practices and nudity are those that come out of places like New Orleans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or out of Europe in the early Modern period around the time of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In both cases, one group sought to exoticize another group and ascribing their rituals with depraved sexual fantasies made the stories of witchcraft all the more thrilling (in the same way that many horror films use flesh to both allure and repulse). Simply reading the Malleus Maleficarum opens up a realm of psychosexual fixations that reflect far more on the priest writing the stories than on any reported activities of witches. Scholar Ronald Hutton links some of these concerns to the long entanglement of witches as magic workers to night-stalking demons like succubi, who stole semen from sleeping men and tormented them with sexual dreams. The New Orleans press, in a similar vein, frequently featured stories of “primitive” African American “voodoo dances,” in which scores of naked or nearly-naked black men would dance. The scandal of these stories would escalate–often with particularly dire consequences to the black men–when papers reported white women joining the dances, again often nude. In these sensationalized accounts, the stripping of the body was highly sexualized and often showed the readers of such stories that magic, witchcraft, voodoo, or other forbidden topics would inevitably corrupt those who came too close. Those who know much about Vodoun as a religion, however, know that nudity is not typical to the formal celebrations and rituals to honor the lwa or invite them into a practitioner’s body. Clothing is often very specifically a part of the rites, with specific colors like white being appropriate when performing music or dance or offerings to invite divine interactions.
As often as there are stories of witches removing clothing, there are stories of witches slipping their skins off entirely–something I imagine most witches today won’t do readily–or donning animal skins as a precursor to shapeshifting, as often happened with the skinwalkers of Dine/Navajo tradition. Such practices were also echoed by those who hunted witches, as in Zuni rituals designed to help cleanse a community of witches when witch-hunters wore bear skins to enable them to track witches wearing the skins of creatures like coyotes. It’s worth noting as well that in the Zuni world, many of the accused witches were men, and contact with them required a special water-cleansing ceremony in which those afflicted with witchcraft would be stripped and bathed.
Albert Joseph Penot [Public domain] (via Wikimedia Commons)
So do witches go about in the nude? Absolutely. There’s no reason to think that they don’t. At the same time, do they have to go around in the nude? Absolutely not. Plenty of stories show witches putting on special clothing such as a fur or a veil in order to work witchcraft, and it does not seem to interfere at all with Gardener’s “electromagnetic field” (which, to be fair, even he conceded was not absolutely bound by clothing). Most crucially, except in sensationalized accounts, the nudity involved with witch stories is not particularly sexualized in the New World. There are many tales in which a magic worker might be bare but their nakedness is a symbolic act for them alone, and never an invitation for another person to violate their body. There are always exceptions, of course, but in most cases, we see examples like Hurston’s where a nude witch (or magical practitioner) is treated with extreme reverence and respect, rather than objectified for their body. Only when the nude witch is caught in the gaze of someone outside of her practice (and by someone untrustworthy) does her nakedness become a sexual problem, which seems to say much more about the one doing the gazing (and I, for one, am all for reviving a Euripedes-esque tearing asunder of those who would impose themselves on any gathering of witches in any state of undress).
Naked or not, the witch is powerful. Naked or not, the witch is not to be messed with. Naked or not, the witch does her work, and it is best to let her be.
Thanks for reading!
Breslaw, Elaine G., ed. Witches of the Atlantic World. NYU Press, 2000.
Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Univ. of California Press, 2011 ed.
Courlander, Harold. A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore. DaCapo Press, 1996.
Darling, Andrew. “Mass Inhumation & the Execution of Witches in the American Southwest.” American Anthropologist 100 (3), 1998. 732-52.
Garcia, Nasario. Brujerias: Stories of Witchcraft and the Supernatural in the American Southwest and Beyond. Texas Tech Univ. Press, 2007.
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, and Maria Tatar. The Annotated African American Folktales. Liveright, 2017.
Gardner, Gerald B. Witchcraft Today. Citadel, 2004 ed.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules & Men. HarperCollins, 2009 ed.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Tell My Horse: Voodoo in Haiti and Jamaica. HarperCollins, 2008 ed.
Hutton, Ronald. The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present. Yale Univ. Press, 2017.
Leland, Charles. Aradia: Gospel of the Witches. Witches’ Almanac, 2010 ed.
Milnes, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery. Univ. of Tenn. Press, 2012 ed.
Paddon, Peter. Visceral Magic. Pendraig, 2011.
Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. Dover, 1964.
Russell, Randy, and Janet Barnett. The Granny Curse and Other Ghosts and Legends from East Tennessee. Blair, 1999.
Sprenger, James, and Henry Kramer. Malleus Maleficarum. Public Domain (Sacred-texts.com)
Tallant, Robert. Voodoo in New Orleans. Pelican, 1984 ed.
We take a look at the concept of Evil as it relates to magic and witchcraft. Is there such a thing? What guides a witch’s moral compass? Do witches ever summon demons? And just what kind of shenanigans is Cory up to, anyway?
Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time. Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.
Producers for this show: Corvus, Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, The Witches View Podcast, Sarah, Molly, Corvus, Catherine, AthenaBeth, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Shannon, Little Wren, Michael M. and Jessica (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
Download: Episode 102 – Evil
We start off by Looking Back at our Episode 19 – Curses & Hexes. Other articles that might be of interest include Blog Post 105 – The Devil’s Book, Blog Post 126 – Some Devils, and Blog Post 127 – Summoning Devils. Cory also mentions the story of Betty Booker, which can be found in Blog Post 195.
Cory mentions Mont and Duck Moore, two Appalachian witches. Their tales can be found in The Silver Bullet: And Other American Witch Stories as well as this article. Other books mentioned include Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (as well as the film based on it) and Lucifer Ascending, by folklorist Bill Ellis.
We also make mention of the Paranormal Activity series of films, as well as the recent Fox TV series The Exorcist.
Check out our latest podcast effort, Chasing Foxfire, which just launched in early October. If you like folklore, this show will be connecting the dots between folk tales, science, nature, pop culture, literature, and more.
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).
Promos & Music
Episode 81 – Magical Occupations Revisited
We launch our super-exciting and fun Patreon campaign! Come support us and help us grow (and get cool stuff at the same time)! We also revisit one of the topics we enjoyed most in our early days, Magical Occupations, and add some ‘new’ jobs to the list, as well as some new folklore to explore.
We have to give a very special thanks to YOU! Our listeners! You sent in the emails and comments which we used to think about magical occupations a second time around, and added so much brilliant insight to the discussion. Thank you!
Other sources include:
- Judika Illes and her Encyclopedia of Witchcraft formed the basis for the first episode and influenced this one as well.
- Cory brings up the Storyteller pots of the American Southwest
- We discuss the famous Child Ballads
- Cory mentions Joshua Gunn’s Modern Occult Rhetoric
For a look at the folklore in J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world, check out The Sorcerer’s Companion: A Guide to the Magical World of Harry Potter.
Some resources based on the various “new” jobs discussed:
- Bartenders: I recommend Wicked Plants and The Drunken Botanist (both by Amy Stewart) for a perspective on the magic of bartending (and other botanical extracts).
- Outlaws: You can check out these articles on Santa Muete & Jesus Malverde for more information on those figures.
- Musicians & DJs: Learn more about Tommy Johnson, the figure behind the legend of the crossroads pact with the Devil in blues music.
- Holy People: African American preacher tales can be found in Harold Courlander’s Afro-American Folktales. We also mention Randall Kenan’s Let the Dead Bury the Dead and Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.”
- Cooks/Chefs: We mention a trio of films about magic and eating – Simply Irresistible, Chocolat, & Like Water for Chocolate
- Nurses: Barbara Brennan’s Hands of Light is a book which uses energy healing in a nursing context
- Hairdressers: Carolyn Morrow Long’s bio of Marie Laveau, A Voudou Priestess, addresses some of the hairdressing lore.
Cory also enthusiastically recommends the film Gypsy 83.
Please, please, please, check out our new Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time. Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
Promos & Music
Incidental music in this episode is selected from the emerging genre of Witchhouse. The band you hear samples from is Salem, from their free album “I Buried My Heart Inna Wounded Knee.”
Podcast recommendation: Dusted! A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Podcast (which both Cory & Laine have been listening to far too often)
Come pull up a chair by the fireside with Daddy Splitfoot and listen to some devilish folklore submitted by listeners (and expanded upon by your sinister host). This time we visit the American West, particularly the Mormon cultural region, for our lore and legends.
The source for most of this episode is YOU! Our wonderful listeners, who supplied us with this lore back in the Spring during our contest. The legend of Bigfoot in Mormon country can be found lots of places, but this one makes a good starting point (and links to many of the others): MormonThink – Bigfoot
Promos & Music
Incidental music by Olssons (“Ambient1”) & Byzons (“L’Horrible Passion”). All tracks are used through Creative Commons license on SoundCloud.
The song between acts is “The Devil Made Texas,” by Hermes Nye, found on Smithsonian Folkways.
Come pull up a chair by the fireside with Daddy Splitfoot and listen to some devilish folklore submitted by listeners (and expanded upon by your sinister host).
Download: Special Episode – Daddy Splitfoot’s Fireside Tales (Part One)
The source for most of this episode is YOU! Our wonderful listeners, who supplied us with this lore back in the Spring during our contest. I also augment two of the pieces of lore with outside sources: 1) The story of Spring-Heeled Jack, adapted from Daniel Cohen’s Encyclopedia of Monsters, and 2) The Wendigo, told from Alvin Schwartz’s collection Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Promos & Music
Incidental music by So I’m an Islander (“Quiet Storm Surge”), Canton (“Ambient Gourd”), & Olssons (“Ambient1”). All tracks are used through Creative Commons license on SoundCloud.
The song between acts is “Me & the Devil Blues,” by Robert Johnson, and is available at archive.org.
March month of ‘many weathers’ wildly comes
In hail and snow and rain and threatning hums
And floods: while often at his cottage door
The shepherd stands to hear the distant roar…
The ploughman mawls along the doughy sloughs
And often stop their songs to clean their ploughs
From teazing twitch that in the spongy soil
Clings round the colter terryfying toil
The sower striding oer his dirty way
Sinks anckle deep in pudgy sloughs and clay
And oer his heavy hopper stoutly leans
Strewing wi swinging arms the pattering beans
Which soon as aprils milder weather gleams
Will shoot up green between the furroed seams
~John Clare, The Shepherd’s Calendar: “March”
Dear Listeners and Readers,
Here we are in the lovely springtime, knee-deep in the grime of new life, planting seeds to bear fruit under other moons than this one. In a few days, we will (hopefully) be releasing our March episode, which deals with that selfsame celestial sphere, and on that show we’ll be announcing our latest contest. Since you are a dedicated and devoted fan of our work, however, you get a little advance warning and some extra time to work on your entries.
So what do you have to do for this contest? We’re looking for family, regional, or local folklore on two topics. Send in your lore about:
- Anything related to the sun, moon, and stars. Did your family tell stories about specific stars or constellations? Did they hold moon-gazing parties or eat moon cakes? Were there special things you were supposed to do during an equinox? Share your heavenly lore with us and get an entry into the drawing!
- -OR –
- Share your lore about devils, demons, and “bad” spirits. Was there some spot supposed to be haunted by the devil near where you grew up? Were you forbidden to play Ouija boards because of demon possession? Share your most diabolical tales and enter that way as well.
You can even enter in each category! (Only one entry per category per person, please. You can share as much lore as you want, though). Simply email us with the subject line “Spring 2015 Contest” at email@example.com, and you’ll get your entry (or entries). Make sure to let us know where you’re from/family background, and what name (if any) you’d want us to use if we read your entry on the show.
Deadline: Midnight, April 30th (Walpurgisnacht), 2015.
So what is up for grabs if you decide to share a bit of your devilish or stellar side? We’ve got three potential prize packages we’re offering for this event:
- Prize Package The FIrst – Grimoires Old: A copy of The Long Lost Friend (Hohman, Daniel Harms, ed.) & The Black Pullet (anonymous but very important grimoire in the New World)
- Prize Package The Second – Grimoires New: A copy of Peter Paddon’s Grimoire for Modern Cunning Folk & Robert Chapman’s Pow-Wow Grimoire
- Prize Package The Third – Get Lucky: A bottle of our Crown of Success oil, a lucky charm or two, and a copy of 54 Devils thrown in for fun (you know, lucky at cards…)
If those are appealing to you (or even if they’re not and you just want to participate), please send in your lore to firstname.lastname@example.org and know we’ll be absolutely thrilled to hear from you. Questions about the contest or lore are welcome at that address, too. Good luck!
All the best,
-Cory & Laine
SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL – THE LAST DANCE
Our second 2014 All Hallows Read urban legend is a tale from San Antonio, TX. It centers on a nightclub and a rather unwelcome guest.
I first found this urban legend on the Snopes site. The actual version I tell on the show is my own rendition of this story.
Podcast Special – Learning Witchcraft
Summary: In this episode, I’ll be telling stories from American folklore about how people learn witchcraft. We’ll hear tales of initiation and apprenticeship, solitary witches, witch apprenticeships, and find out just what witches do.
Download: New World Witchery Special – Learning Witchcraft
- Examination of Tituba recorded by Ezekiel Cheever in Witches of the Atlantic World, Elaine Breslaw, ed. (p. 377-80)
- Hubert J. Davies – “Delivered Up to the Devil,” from The Silver Bullet (p. 20-25)
- Patrick Gainer – a story from Witches, Ghosts, & Signs (p. 164-5)
- Jim Edmonds’ short tale in Foxfire 2 (p. 355)
- Vance Randolph – from Ozark Magic & Superstition (p. 265-8)
- Account of traiteurs – Dorson/Brandon in Buying the Wind (p. 265-6)
- Zora N. Hurston – from Mules & Men, recounting her initiation by Rev. Joe Watson (p. 215-7)
- Timothy Knab – from A War of Witches (p. 4-11 excerpts)
- “Sadness of the Witch”
- “The Art of Possession”
- “Less Likely to Believe”
- “Something About Eve”
- “Reading the Leaves”
I know this isn’t the botanical lore I was promising for the month of April, but don’t worry, there’s more of that coming. I just had to share something that my very dear and wonderful friend Kathleen alerted me to. One of my favorite non-magical podcasts in the world, Radiolab, just did a really interesting mini-show on a topic which intersects with our work here!
Please hop over and check out the 30 minute Radiolab short on the Crossroads, specifically the tangled crossroads legend surrounding blues players Robert Johnson (to whom the myth of selling his soul to become a great blues player is frequently ascribed) and Tommy Johnson (who may actually have done the crossroads ritual). There are fantastic interviews with music historians, blues experts, and even Tommy Johnson’s brother, all of which help shed light on the strange and gorgeous African American folk tale about gaining new power at the crossroads.
I should point out that they come at this from a scientific and historical perspective, and really are pursuing the true story about the musicians rather than doing much to get at the folkloric roots of the crossroads phenomenon. They specifically wind up ignoring the existence of the story in other African American literary and folklore sources, such as these:
- The multiple incidents of crossoroads conjure recorded by Harry M. Hyatt between 1935-1939 (found at the bottom of the Lucky Mojo page linked above), which would have pre-dated the “creation” of this story as described in the Radiolab short
- The numerous incidences of crossroads as places of healing, particularly trading things like a wart or a sty to a mysterious stranger, in Southern and African American folklore (which can be found in Hyatt’s work, the work of Vance Randolph, and Newbell Niles Puckett).
- Puckett’s description of the crossroads ritual as an origin for folk hero Jack, which was published in 1926 and states:
Various legends are in vogue among the Negroes to account for the origin of this creature. One illustrating the common theme, was told me by a root-doctor last summer. Jack sold himself to the devil at the crossroads one night at twelve o’clock. For seven years all power was given to him to do as he pleased, but at the end of that period his soul belonged to the devil. [This eventually goes on to tell the story of Jack-o-Lantern, but the crossroads portion of it is given here as illustration of my particular point]
- Zora Neale Hurston’s 1931 article on African American folk magic, which has the following item in it:
How to Have a Slick Hand with People.
On the dark moon of any Friday night, dress yourself in black. Sit flat in the fork of a cross road at exactly twelve o’clock and sell yourself out to the devil. After which you shall have power to do anything you wish to do (“Hoodoo in America,” 392)
- The appearance of crossroads in European folk magic (such as that found in Charles Leland’s Gypsy Sorcery & Fortune-telling, published in 1891, long before the legends being described in the blues tales)
There are so many other appearances of crossroads in folklore that it would be daunting to tackle them here (though I will probably try to do a bigger article on them some day). My real point is just to say that while I love the Radiolab story, they definitely overlooked a large amount of crossroads material so that they could focus more on the story of two real blues musicians, which is understandable.
I really do hope you’ll give this particular show a listen. It’s great, especially in its ability to untangle the two legends from one another, and you get to hear some really hauntingly good blues, too. Let me know what you think of it!
All the best, thanks for reading, and see you down at the crossroads…